Tories win power as Canadians reject status quo

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — After 13 years of center-right rule, angry voters on Jan. 23 penalized the incumbent Liberal Party of Paul Martin by electing a Conservative Party minority government headed by Stephen Harper.

The Conservatives, or Tories, won 124 seats and obtained 36.5 percent of the vote, up 7 percent from the 2004 mid-year elections. The Liberals lost 32 seats — dropping to 103 — and its popular vote shrank to 30 percent, 7 percent less than a year and a half ago.

The Conservatives successfully capitalized on voter fatigue with more than a decade of Liberal rule. The Liberals were rocked by repeated scandals, the most serious being revelations that during the 1990s they funneled $100 million (Canadian) in taxpayer money to Liberal-friendly advertising firms in Quebec, who then turned around and made kickbacks to the Liberal Party.

During their tenure the Liberals also carried out a neoconservative economic program, including signing the NAFTA free trade agreement with the U.S., drastically reducing spending on social programs and cutting taxes for large corporations. All these measures undermined the standard of living for many Canadians and fueled the backlash.

The Conservative campaign focused on hot-button issues. Tory leader Harper, among other things, promised to cut taxes, boost defense spending to “protect Canadian sovereignty,” end corruption in Ottawa, crack down on crime and hold a “free vote” in Parliament on same-sex marriage.

The Liberal attempt to campaign from the left, offering to spend more money on social programs and set up a national day care system, failed to win over the voters.

However, several political analysts insisted that the Conservative victory does not represent a shift to the right among the electorate. “There was no real move to the right, but an attempt to punish the Liberals,” remarked Kimball Cariou, editor of People’s Voice, newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC).

The left-leaning New Democratic Party increased its vote to 17.5 percent from 15.7 percent in 2004 and won 29 seats, a gain of 11. The Bloc Quebecois captured 16 percent of the vote and 51 seats. Ten smaller parties and independents garnered 5.5 percent of the vote, with the Green Party accounting for 4.5 percent of that. Only one independent won a parliamentary seat.

The Communist Party campaign attracted great interest (its election web site received 4.2 million hits), and the average vote for the party’s 21 candidates increased in comparison to 2004, but remained low. Factors such as the first-past-the-post electoral system, strategic voting to keep the Conservatives from winning power, and lack of money for advertising hampered the CPC’s ability to make inroads. Its analysis of the election results can be found at www.communist-party.ca.

According to Elections Canada, 64 percent of registered voters turned out.

The rise of Harper, a fundamentalist Christian who shares an ideological affinity with right-wing evangelical movement in the U.S., reflects the mainstreaming of this brand of politics in Canada. “Over the last five to six years, social conservatives in Canada have been trying to flex more muscle,” said Chris Mackenzie, author of the recently published book “Pro-family Politics and Fringe Parties in Canada,” in a recent interview with the Vancouver-based gay newspaper Xtra West. “Canadian social conservatives are now moving into established parties.”

Lloyd Mace, author of a recent biography of Harper, who warned last September that “radical religious militants” were trying to take over the Tories and ultimately Parliament, estimates that half of the current Conservative caucus in Parliament supports fundamentalist religious positions.

Because the Tories do not have a strong majority in Parliament, they will have to work closely with other parties. To pass legislation, the new government will need 155 votes, 31 short of what it has now. Political analysts suggest that Harper will likely look to the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois for support.